An invitation to speak at an international literary festival in Italy has turned into an ongoing nightmare for Akram Aylisli, an esteemed Azerbaijani author who has endured persistent intimidation since he began criticizing his country's leadership in 2011.
Long honored by the state as a cherished cultural figure, the 78-year-old Aylisli has become a prominent target of what rights activists say is a growing government campaign to silence independent voices and stifle dissent.
On March 30, police at Baku's international airport stopped Aylisli from traveling to the Crossroads of Civilizations festival in Venice, accusing him of assaulting and seriously injuring a border guard almost half a century his junior -- a claim the writer dismisses as "absurd."
Authorities initially charged Aylisli with hooliganism, threatening the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize nominee with up to a year behind bars. But on September 6, the Prosecutor-General's Office revised the charge to "using violence against government representatives," a more serious charge that, considering the border guard's purported injuries, could lead to a seven-year prison sentence.
Investigators said they would summon Aylisli this week for further questioning, but as of September 15 they had not done so.
Aylisli denies the charges, calling them politically motivated retribution for his writing. "They have presented a fit, 30-year-old man who accuses me of using physical force against him, saying I punched him so hard that it caused internal injuries," Aylisli tells RFE/RL. "The allegations are just so poorly thought-out."
"All I did was tell them I was going to an international event with representatives from 20 countries," he said. "They deprived me of my right to travel abroad."
Contradicting Official Truths
Aylisli's troubles with President Ilham Aliyev's government began half a decade ago.
His pension and state awards were revoked after the publication in 2012 of his book Stone Dreams, whose depiction of massacres of ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan during the late 1980s and early 1990s contradicted Baku's official narrative of events during the war over the breakaway of Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Aylisli's writings were removed from school curricula in the former Soviet republic, and his books have been burned at rallies in front of his apartment building in Baku.
He has been accused in parliament of treason and threatened by the leader of the pro-government Modern Musavat party, who offered a bounty equal to $13,000 for cutting off one of Aylisli's ears.
Aliyev's government portrays the backlash against Aylisli as a spontaneous, patriotic movement against a writer who betrayed the country.
But Alasgar Mammadli, a free-speech advocate at the Civil Society Platform, an NGO, says the government is encouraging Azerbaijanis to treat Aylisli as a kind of "persona non grata" as part of an "attack on freedom of expression."
"Nobody considers what happened at Baku airport to be legal, considering his age and status," Mammadli says. "It is obvious that he was artificially barred from leaving the country because of his writing."
Human Rights Watch has called on Aliyev's government to bring an end to the "hostile campaign of intimidation" against Aylisli, saying the state is "making a mockery out of its international obligations on freedom of expression."
An Earlier 'Betrayal'
Khadija Ismayilova, an RFE/RL journalist who spent 1 1/2 years in jail on financial-crimes charges widely seen as retaliation for her reports on government corruption, also believes Aylisli is the target of an intimidation campaign "orchestrated by the government."
"People who have never read any of his writings were forced to come and protest, burn his books, and so on. And the government presented it as if Akram Aylisli was writing against Azerbaijan's national interests and portraying Azerbaijanis as savages," Ismayilova says.
But Ismayilova, who is herself barred from leaving the Caspian Sea state under a court-ordered travel ban, says that "the retaliation was not for Stone Dreams."
She believes Aylisli is being punished for a 2011 novel, The Grand Traffic Jam, that she says portrays President Aliyev's late father and predecessor, Heidar Aliyev, as "a dictator with maniacal problems."
"Whatever has happened to Akram Aylisli since then, including these recent moves against him, is just a continuation of pressure and retaliation for what he wrote about Heidar Aliyev," Ismayilova said.
Before 2011, Aylisli publicly supported the government. He was awarded the title People's Writer and received Azerbaijan's highest state awards: the Medal of Honor and the Medal of Independence.
He also was a member of parliament from 2005 until 2010.
"Akram Aylisli is not like an ordinary Azerbaijani," Ismayilova says. "They've made it clear that if the government can do this to Akram Aylisli, it can be done to any writer. It's one of their tactics of intimidation and it works well."
The authorities are continuing to hold Aylisli's identification documents and enforce a travel ban during an investigation that his supporters fear could last years before any trial. Meanwhile, he lives with the knowledge that he could be taken into custody at any time.
Delaying the judicial process in politically motivated cases is "another one of the tactics the government uses against its critics," Ismayilova explains.
Literature 'Has Its Own Life'
Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert and senior associate at the Carnegie Europe think tank, calls Aylisli's writing courageous. "He wrote [Stone Dreams] not as a politician or a journalist, but as an artist and a writer," De Waal says. "He expressed his vision in an artistic work" that calls on Azerbaijani society to admit wrongdoings and accept responsibility.
In an interview, Aylisli says he has lived through many hardships "but what has been happening lately is more difficult than ever."
"I am not at fault for having a work that is accepted around the world differently than the way it is perceived in Azerbaijan," he says. "Literary works have their own destiny once they leave an author's hands. Our authorities, unfortunately, do not accept this fate."
Aylisli says his age and health problems make it unlikely he would survive long in an Azerbaijani prison. "I don't think about where I will die. But at this age, I don't think it would suit our government -- or myself -- if I die in prison," he says.
"My family has been worried about this for a while now, especially the women in my family. Their worries are far worse than my own concerns," he says. "It is harder for them."